After the conquest, the Spanish Crown was faced with the task of colonizing its new territories and subsuming their indigenous population into its empire. From the beginning, conversion to Catholicism became one of the most powerful tools to consolidate power. Accordingly, religious art and architecture took on an enormous importance very early on: splendid monasteries and cathedrals dazzled and instilled awe in the natives, while paintings and sculpture were used both for visual religious instruction and to provide icons of worship that would replace their former idols.
In the early days, religious art was imported from Spain, but the need to disperse large quantities of it around the continent prompted the growth of home-grown artists’ workshops and guilds in the colonial centres, where Spanish teachers trained indígenas and mestizos. This resulted in a unique blend of indigenous and European elements: carvings of biblical characters were frequently clothed in typical native dress, for instance, and sometimes given indigenous traits and colouring.
The main production centres of religious art were Quito, Bogotá and Cuzco, each developing its own style. Over time, Quito artists became known for their mastery of polychromy (decorative colouring), particularly in their carvings of Mary, Christ and numerous saints, made out of cedar or red oak. Characterized by bold colours and exuberant decoration, the style found its greatest expression between 1660 and 1765, when the proliferation of high-quality Quiteño artists gave rise to the Quito School of art.
Led by Miguel de Santiago and Bernardo de Legarda in the early eighteenth century, and later by Manuel Chili, known as Caspicara, the Quito School’s most delicate and beautiful creations were its polychrome carvings, often of the Virgin, covered in sumptuous attire and exposing only the head, face, hands and feet. One of the most peculiar aspects of the style was an excessive take on realism, using human hair and false eyelashes, nails and glass eyes. The school’s paintings were characterized by vivid shades of red against darker, duller tones.
The movement began to wane towards the end of the eighteenth century, when secular subjects such as landscapes, portraits and town scenes began to replace religious ones. It finally died out after Ecuador’s independence from Spain in 1822, when the type of religious art the school produced was rejected for its associations with the old regime.